We upset a sheriff and a grieving family last week — not because we wanted to but because we had to.
I’m talking about our coverage of the deadly shooting Aug. 4 at the Magic Valley Portuguese Hall in Wendell. We began reporting what we knew not long after the shooting happened, updating our story with new information at Magicvalley.com as it became available.
By that Friday afternoon, we knew that two people were dead: Tony Sousa, 56, of Wendell, and Agustin Nopal Donu, 34, of Paul. Sousa was widely known in the area. Donu was not. Authorities suspected one man had shot the other, and then turned the high-powered rifle on himself.
What we didn’t know was who shot whom.
Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough wouldn’t say — understandable and not unusual in the hours just after a shooting when investigators are still trying to piece together a crime scene.
But by early the next week, Gough was still declining to identify the shooter even though police had closed their investigation. According to Gough, he had told one of the families he wouldn’t cooperate with the media. Moreover, he told a Times-News reporter he would do everything in his power to keep the public from finding out which man was the killer.
Here’s why that’s a problem:
Someone in that hall murdered another human being. That’s news. Whatever happened after the murder — in this case, the shooter’s suicide — doesn’t erase the fact that a heinous crime was committed.
Further, in an effort to protect the shooter’s reputation and spare his family some shame, however soft-hearted the sheriff’s intentions, he was unintentionally hurting the family of the victim. I’m sure that just as much as the shooter’s family wanted his identity kept out of the historical record, the victim’s family wanted their loved one publicly cleared of murder.
It’s unusual for police to take such steps, and the decision to obstruct news reporting puts law enforcement on a slippery slope. What if the shooting had not involved a widely known resident like Sousa? What if the shooting involved two minorities? A government official? What if it had happened in a mobile home park? Inside a business or school? Would the sheriff have handled this the same way?
Sheriffs shouldn’t be in a position to make those choices. And we shouldn’t be either. That’s why the Times-News will always strive to report the identities of perpetrators of deadly shootings — regardless of variables like a person’s race, prominence in the community or relationship with us or police. A shooter is a shooter. A victim is a victim.
In the end, despite the sheriff’s efforts, we obtained the police reports through a records request under Idaho law.
Those reports indicated Sousa was the shooter, and that’s what we reported in a follow-up story once we obtained the documents. We did not share the gory details of the crime scene chronicled in the reports; just the facts the public deserved to know. Still, Gough called that afternoon to blast us, and that’s OK. He thought he was right from his side, and we thought we were right from ours. Both of us were trying to do our best.
One last thought: Just as no one in the sheriff’s office took pleasure from investigating a tragedy like this, no one in the newsroom took pleasure in reporting the story or claimed victory in obtaining the documents. We don’t chase murder-suicides to sell papers or get clicks on our website. We do it to keep the public informed, to give truth to the historical record.
In this case, we did our jobs the best we could, which is to report the news fairly and accurately.
Sometimes the news hurts people’s feelings. But if my choice is to cover up a murder-suicide or upset a sheriff, I’ll side on reporting the truth every time.